Hearts yesterday finalised a deal to sign ex-Rangers forward Kyle Lafferty on a two-year deal. Craig Fowler looks at the potential pros and cons of the move.
This writer recently interviewed an ex-Rangers player for an upcoming article in Nutmeg Magazine. On the subject of training, the retired pro explained that everyone at a club like Rangers tries their hardest. You don’t get there in the first place without being a determined worker, and because you’re playing with other great players, you naturally raise your own standards because you want to prove you’re as good as them. Everyone wanted to do their best every day - except Kyle Lafferty.
“Lovely, lovely bloke,” said the former team-mate of Hearts’ most recent signing, “but when it came to training - nah.” This is almost a compliment compared with the most famous quote regarding Lafferty, spat out by former Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini, who called him “an out of control womaniser, an Irishman without rules” following his exit from the Italian side.
Lafferty insists he’s a changed and more mature individual than the young man who fostered such a reputation. Remarried in 2016, he’s put the almost hedonistic lifestyle he enjoyed in Italy behind him, though it’s yet to lead to an increase in productivity on the pitch; playing only 16 times last season for Norwich City, the last of three frustrating years with the club. Now he arrives at Tynecastle on a two-year deal, desperate to prove he’s turned over a new leaf and capable of performing consistently at club level, which may lead to one last big paycheck when his contract expires a couple of months before his 32nd birthday.
There is absolutely no doubt this is the biggest gamble of the Ian Cathro-Austin MacPhee era at Hearts. The club have made a string of bad signings on big contracts over the past two years, and with the squad only good enough for a fifth place finish last term, and the management duo already under pressure, they cannot afford another to blow up in their face.
If Lafferty fails in the same way as the Tony Watt signing, a similarly talented striker with a bad-boy reputation, then it’ll surely be the end of the Hearts management duo. They need the Northern Ireland international to be fully focused on the task at hand because even a respectable season - say fourth behind Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers - might not be enough to redeem the pair in the eyes of the Hearts faithful, especially if derby results continue in the trend of the Ann Budge era.
But this is high risk, high reward. Lafferty’s club career may not have reached the heights it could have done, but his form for Northern Ireland over the past few years demonstrates the kind of quality he has. The nation’s fairytale run to Euro 2016 would not have been possible without Lafferty’s seven goals, as he became the undoubted talisman of the squad.
The talent is definitely there. Even at 29, he’s got great mobility for a 6ft 4in player, capable of heading the ball, holding up play, linking with others, running in behind and scoring the goals. And even though he’s previously been derided for his work ethic in training, when it comes to game time he’s a determined worker. This is the enigma of Kyle Lafferty. It’s how Zamparini can be so derisive, while others wax lyrical about how nice a guy he is.
Here’s a quote from Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill when asked about Lafferty, man and player, on Graham Hunter’s podcast The Big Interview: “When I’m in a dressing room, I look for guys I would be friends with, and Kyle is that. He’s a genuinely good lad. Yes, he’s done some stupid things, but it’s not through malice, it’s through naivety.
“He’d never played poorly for me, and his work rate was always exceptional. But I wanted him to curtail some of his runs. He’d basically run himself to a standstill for the team.
“I told him he needed to change how he was perceived and how his game was. He looked like a player who wasn’t always totally focused all the time. I said, ‘when you’re here, we need you focused’.
“I told him we need a massive campaign out of him - ten games. And the first day I felt he wasn’t focused, I brought him in again. You could see he was a bit hurt, saying things like, ‘I don’t have to be here’. And I said, ‘no you don’t, but we need you here and we need you to add something to this team’.”
The podcast was entitled The Player Whisperer. It might as well have been called The Lafferty Whisperer, and that’s exactly what he’ll need at Hearts - someone to coax the best out of him. Thankfully for the club, Edinburgh might be the perfect place. O’Neill, his international boss, the man who’s tapped Lafferty’s potential like no other, lives in the same city and will surely be watching with a keen eye. His wife, too, is from Scotland, and will obviously join him in Edinburgh unless she wants to stay in Norwich and learn about the pedestrianisation of the city centre.
Even if O’Neill isn’t around to lend some advice, MacPhee is a member of his backroom staff and will have some insider knowledge on how to handle the player. This leaves Cathro with the unenviable task of trying to fashion a coherent strike-partnership out of his new signing and the equally capricious Esmael Goncalves, two players who tend to drift around and do a lot of their work outside the penalty area. Hearts need goals from the pair, and with an incredibly tough start to the campaign they’ll need to start scoring immediately.